Speedy Trial

By Daisy Rogozinsky
/
July 24, 2022

The Sixth Amendment guarantees U.S. citizens a number of rights, including the right to a speedy trial. In this article, we’ll define the term “speedy trial” and explain what it means for a trial to be speedy or not.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all accused people in criminal prosecutions have the right to a speedy trial
  • Speedy trials are a fundamental liberty because they protect a defendant’s ability to defend against charges and prevent lengthy unfounded imprisonment
  • The Speedy Trial Act establishes time limits for completing the various stages of a federal criminal prosecution, including 30 days for indictment and 70 days for trial
  • Courts use a balancing test to determine whether or not a defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated

What Is a Speedy Trial?

According to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, all accused people in criminal prosecutions shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial. If a convicted defendant can establish that their right to a speedy trial was violated, the court must set aside the conviction, vacate the sentence, and dismiss the charging document. If the case hasn’t yet gone to trial, the court must dismiss the charges.

Why Speedy Trials Matter

There are several reasons why speedy trials are considered to be a fundamental liberty, including that they:

  • Protect the defendant’s ability to defend against charges - it is harder to win a case that takes longer to litigate because memories may fade and evidence may disappear
  • Reduce the anxiety of awaiting a case resolution
  • Prevent lengthy unfounded imprisonment

How Long Is a Speedy Trial?​​

In the legal context, the term “speedy” is relative. Generally speaking, a speedy trial is one that occurs as soon as reasonably possible. 

The Sixth Amendment does not state exactly what does and does not qualify as a speedy trial. However, the federal government and many states have laws specifying the time frame within which prosecutors must bring defendants to trial. 

For example, in California, the government must get a defendant charged with a felony to trial within 60 days of indictment or arraignment unless there is good cause for a delay. The defendant may move the proceedings slower if they choose. 

The Speedy Trial Act

In addition to mention of speedy trials in the Sixth Amendment, there is also something called the Speedy Trial Act which applies to federal courts. The Speedy Trial Act establishes time limits for completing the various stages of a federal criminal prosecution. According to the Speedy Trial Act:

  • The indictment must be filed within 30 days from the date of arrest or service of summons
  • Trial must commence within 70 days from the date the indictment was filed or the date the defendant appears before an officer of the court in which the charge is pending, whichever is later
  • In order to give defendants adequate time to prepare, trials may not begin less than 30 days from the date the defendant first appears in court unless the defendant agrees to it in writing

Speedy Trial Analysis

If a defendant claims that their right to a speedy trial was violated, the courts undertake a speedy trial analysis called a balancing test. This assesses the following factors:

  • The length of the delay
  • The reason for the delay
  • Whether the defendant asserted the speedy trial right
  • Whether the length of the trial compromised the defense

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